Sunday, June 01, 2014

Providing for the Family of God -- Sermon for Easter 7A/Ascension Sunday

John 17:1-11

Family life changes from generation to generation.  We may prefer the way we grew up to the way these newfangled families do it today, but change is inevitable.  This is especially true of the roles we play in our families.  Things have changed dramatically since the 1950s – back when Father Knew Best.   Back in the age of Beaver Cleaver, the father went to work, brought home the bacon, and the mother cooked it up.  And if you misbehaved, well, wait till your Father gets home.  Thankfully, Ward Cleaver was a very understanding father.

But things began to change in the late 1960s, when Julia was a nurse and a single mother.  What can I say about today’s Modern Family?  Depending on your perspective – things are better or they’re worse – but we can agree on one thing – they’re different!  And even the world of the 1950s wasn’t the same as the world of the Bible.  

One thing remains constant – the family, in whatever its configuration, has needs that must be taken care of.  It could be the “traditional family,” or any number of non-traditional forms of family.  Just to complicate things, let’s remember that Jesus on one occasion – in another gospel –   told the crowd that “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35).

Today is Ascension Sunday, and on this day we remember that Jesus, after his resurrection departed this earth, and according to the Gospels rejoined God in heaven.  You can imagine that his followers weren’t really excited about the prospect of his departure.  In Acts 1, when Jesus rises into the air, his disciples look upwards – just a bit stunned.  Yes, Jesus had told them that he wasn’t abandoning them and that he was going to send them the Holy Spirit – the one whom John calls the Comforter – so that they could continue carrying out his mission.  But you know how it is, when someone leaves – even if they’ve prepared you beforehand.

Blogger Rachel Held Evans captures their thinking and perhaps ours as well, as they contemplated this moment of departure, in her letter to Jesus for Ascension Sunday, she writes:
I’ll be honest, Jesus, Ascension Day brings up some abandonment issues for me. I know you promised we wouldn’t be alone, that you would send a Helper and Advocate, full of power and truth and ready to guide, but let’s face it: the fire of the Spirit is the wild kind. One moment I sense that it’s blazing like the burning bush, the next it’s like it’s out with a poof. I still haven’t figured it out. I still haven’t been able to pin it down. 
But, as in nature, there comes a time when the little birdie gets pushed out of the nest.  By that time, hopefully, the little birdie has been given the proper training to go out on its own.  And the same was true of Jesus’ disciples – even if they weren’t quite ready to let go.

Now John doesn’t have an Ascension story.  But he does talk in several places about his departure.  In this reading, we go back to the night of his betrayal.  Jesus is in prayer.  He lets God know that the time has come for him to return to Glory.  He’s completed his job.  He’s given the gift of eternal life to the ones God has entrusted to his care.  In other words, he’s provided for his family.

So what should we make of this talk about eternal life?  What comes to mind when you think about eternal life?  Is it pearly gates and streets of gold?  Is it a time of judgment?  Is it angels playing harps on clouds?  Is it an escape from this world and its challenges?

According to John, it would seem that eternal life involves knowing the true God and Jesus, whom God had sent into the world.  He also intimates that this eternal life is a present reality.  If you know God and Jesus, whom God sent into the word, then you are experiencing eternity.  It’s not something we must wait for out there in the future.

If eternal life begins in the present, then what does that mean for us?  Does it mean that what you see is what you get?  I don’t think so.  There is, in the biblical story, a sense of a “now, not yet” reality.  We get a foretaste of eternity now, but we can, as Paul puts it, only see through a mirror dimly the fullness of God’s vision (1 Corinthians 13:12).  We may know God’s vision in part – but Jesus has provided us with enough of a vision that we can begin to see the world from God’s point of view.

Since I started with the way in which TV has presented family life, there’s a move from the 1990s – Pleasantville – that catches the reality of change.  Some of you may have seen it, but since it wasn’t a block buster you may not have seen it.  In any case, in the movie two teen age siblings, a boy and a girl, get sucked into a 1950s TV show.  As you might expect, the world of this show is black and white – without color.  Though these “outsiders” try to blend in, their presence begins to change the world pictured in the show.  In fact, little by little, color comes to this world, which frightens the characters.  They respond by banning “colored” people and riots even break out.  That can happen when change begins to take place in society, but once it’s begun, it’s difficult to stop.     In John’s vision, when Jesus enters the world, he set eternity into motion.  He planted a new vision.  He formed a community of disciples and he taught them the ways of God.  Now it was time for him to go back home, and for them to take the reins.  Jesus knows there will be challenges ahead, so he asks the Father to protect them.  He’s especially concerned about them staying unified.

  Jesus had reason to be concerned.  History hasn’t been kind to our faith tradition.  We’ve broken unity on a regular basis.  In part that’s because we often confuse unity with uniformity.  But our unity is found in our common confession of Jesus as Christ and as Lord.  Everything else emerges from that confession.

The other day Pope Francis met with the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople – Bartholomew I.  After they met together, they seem to have given the impression that they were calling for a new ecumenical council to be held at Nicea in Turkey in the year 2025.  That would be 1700 years after the first Council of Nicea.  This may sound like a long way off, and it’s possible neither man will be alive in 2025, but, if true, they’re setting something in motion that could have great implications for the future of our faith.  We’ll just have to wait patiently to see what happens.

Now, I don’t know if such a Council can come to any final agreement that makes everyone happy on every issue.  I don’t know how they’re going to resolve the leadership questions.  But, maybe they can solve a few nagging problems like the date of Easter and whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father or from the Father and the Son together.  Whatever happens in 2025 – and I hope to be around to see it happen – my hope and my prayer is that we can agree that God is calling us to live out the true meaning of the Gospel – a gospel that emphasizes faith, hope, and love.  If we’re going to love each other, we might want to know what love is.  

The best definition of love I’ve come across is the one offered by theologian Tom Oord.
To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to God and others, to promote overall well-being. [The Nature of Love: A Theology, p. 17].
Love is intentional.  It responds to the love of God and in sympathy and empathy for others by promoting the overall well-being of the other.  This love is a gift that comes when we allow ourselves to be caught up in the love that God experiences within God’s own self.

Therefore, to live out eternal life starts with living in a relationship with God, whom we know and encounter through the person of Jesus, and whom we experience in daily life through the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit.  This Holy Spirit, whom Jesus calls the Comforter, is given to us by Jesus as God’s life-giving and life-empowering breath, so that we might forgive and retain the sins of others (John 20:22-23).  I take that to mean what Paul means when he tells the Corinthians that God has reconciled them to God’s self, and given them the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:16-19).

May eternity begin today in our hearts and in our lives, for this is the gift that Jesus has given to God’s family, which includes us.  And as many of us have been taught – when you receive a gift, receive it with gratitude!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
7th Sunday after Easter/Ascension Sunday
June 1, 2014

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